Avrahm Yarmolinsky, Road to Revolution: A Century of Russian Radicalism, 1956.

Chapter 6

'Get Your Axes!'

The belief in the imminence of a mass revolt persisted, though Chernyshevsky himself was greatly discouraged. The Government's arbitrary actions, it was argued, were driving the country to revolution. The point was made in a leaflet, copies of which were scattered in the chapel of the Winter Palace during the services on Easter Monday, 1862. It addressed itself to the army officers, urging them to side with 'the poor oppressed people' in the coming upheaval.

Then one morning in May people in Moscow and in the capital discovered on their doorsteps or in their mail a piece of underground literature entitled Young Russia that made their hair stand on end. 'Russia,' it ran, 'is entering the revolutionary period of its existence.' The interests of the masses are irreconcilable with those of 'the Imperial party': the landowners, the officials, the Czar. Their plundering of the people can only be stopped by 'a bloody, implacable revolution.' 'We are not afraid of it, although we know that a river of blood will flow and that innocent victims will perish; we greet its coming, we are prepared to lay down our lives for the sake of it, the long desired!' If necessary, the Russians would shed three times as much blood as the Jacobins. The Romanovs have failed to understand 'modern needs.' Some of these are: a federal republic; expropriation of the manor lords and assignment of the land to peasant communes; socialized factories run by elected managers; a national guard to replace the standing army; emancipation of women and public education of children; abolition of inheritance and, indeed, of marriage and the family; the closing of monasteries and nunneries, 'the chief sink of corruption.' To achieve these objectives, 'the revolutionary party' must seize power, set up a dictatorship and 'stop at nothing.' Elections to the National Assembly must take place 'under the influence of the Government, which shall see to it that no partisans of the present order, if any of them remain alive, become members of the Assembly.' Though the masses are relied upon, initiative is to be taken by the army and 'our youth.' The latter is urged to head the revolutionary movement.

The manifesto ends on a note of vehement rhetoric:

'Soon, soon the day will come when we will unfurl the great flag of the future, the red flag, and . . . move upon the Winter Palace to exterminate its inhabitants. It may be that the affair will end with the destruction of the Czar and his kin only, but it may also happen that the whole Imperial party will come to his aid. In that case, with full faith in ourselves, in the people's sympathy, in the glorious future of Russia, to whose lot it has fallen to be the first to effect the triumph of Socialism, we will shout with one voice: "Get your axes!", and then we will attack the Imperial party with no more mercy than they show us; we will kill them in the squares . . . kill them in the houses, kill them in the narrow alleys of towns, in the broad avenues of capitals, kill them in the villages and hamlets. . . . Who is not with us is against us, and who is against us is an enemy, and enemies one must destroy by all possible means. . . . And if our cause fails, if we have to pay with our lives for the daring attempt to give man human rights, then we shall go to the scaffold, and putting our heads on the block, or in the noose, repeat the great cry: "Long live the Russian social and democratic republic!"'

There were those who took this bloodthirsty pronouncement to be the work of an agent provocateur intended to discredit the revolutionaries. As a matter of fact, Young Russia emanated from a circle of Moscow students. They reprinted and distributed forbidden books -- so sketchy was control of printing establishments that they could do this with impunity for some time -- they set up 'Sunday schools,' in which adults were taught their letters, and after the liberation of the serfs some of the youths attempted to carry the message of revolt to the peasants. The group was captained by Pyotr Zaichnevsky, son of a retired colonel in moderate circumstances, and Pericles Argiropulo, scion of an aristocratic Graeco-Russian family. In March, 1861, Zaichnevsky made a speech on the church steps after a Mass for the Polish demonstrators shot by Russian troops in Warsaw. He called on the Poles and Russians present to unite against the common enemy, the Russian government, under 'the red banner of Socialism or the black banner of the proletariat.' During his summer vacation he contributed to the political enlightenment of several town misses and tried to arouse some villagers by telling them that all the land was theirs but that they needed arms to get it. As the letters to Argiropulo in which he detailed these activities were read by the police, in the autumn the friends found themselves in a Moscow detention house.

The discipline in this jail was so delightfully lax that their cell became a kind of political club. Incredible as this may sound, it was there that Zaichnevsky, aided by Pericles and other comrades, composed Young Russia. The leaflet was printed on a press which had been removed from the city to a safe place in the country before the start of the arrests that wiped out the circle. These facts remained unknown to the police, and the two youths, together with a score of others, were tried on a charge of having disseminated forbidden literature of a less inflammatory sort. One of the judges noted in his diary that Zaichnevsky gave him the impression of belonging to 'the confessors of Socialism, a word the meaning of which is very vague to them, but for which they are ready to be martyred.' Argiropulo soon died in jail, but Zaichnevsky reached advanced middle age, never out of prison for any length of time, a rebel to the end.

He was nineteen when he composed that prophetic proclamation, but it was by no means an example of the transient extremism of adolescence. All his life he clung to the programme of enforcing Socialism by means of the dictatorship of a revolutionary party -- an idea which after the lapse of many years was to become powerfully operative. In 1924, a leading Soviet historian described the Young Russia leaflet as 'the first Bolshevik document in our history.' This view was proscribed in later years, when emphasis on non-Marxist roots of the official ideology had become taboo. But unquestionably a place must be assigned to Zaichnevsky's thought in the genealogy of Bolshevism. Indeed, it has recently been suggested that a woman follower of his helped to dispose young Lenin to accept the idea that the seizure of political power by a revolutionary party was both feasible and desirable.

A few days after the appearance of Young Russia a succession of fires broke out in the capital. They culminated in a huge conflagration which razed a section of the city. Similar conflagrations occurred in the provinces. The fires may or may not have been accidental. According to The Bell, the police possibly had a hand in the arson, to the end of 'frightening the Emperor above and weak souls below,' a thesis which has recently been advanced again. But popular rumour saw the fires as the work of students and Poles, and the press seized on the theory of revolutionary incendiarism. A cartoon in a public print showed burnt-out buildings and distressed men and women surrounding a statue of Herzen holding an axe in one hand and a torch in the other. The caption read: 'To Iskander [Herzen's pseudonym], a ruined people, 28 May, 1862.' Herzen relates in his memoirs how a breathless young thing came to London all the way from Petersburg to ask him if it was true that he had had a hand in the burning of the capital. Dostoevsky called on Chernyshevsky to beg him to restrain the radicals from such excesses.

The fires were a godsend to the government. The head of the secret police reported to the Emperor that they had aroused universal indignation against students and Poles and 'rebellious heads generally.' It scarcely needs saying that this climate of opinion favoured the reactionary trend that had set in just after the liberation of the serfs. 'If in 1812 Moscow by its fires freed the country from a foreign yoke,' Herzen jested, 'half a century later Petersburg, in the same fashion, freed the country from the yoke of liberalism.'

The embers were hardly extinguished when a number of repressive measures were enacted in rapid succession. Because subversive propaganda had been discovered in one or two 'Sunday Schools,' all the three hundred of them throughout the country were closed, and so were the reading rooms and Petersburg's recently opened Chess Club, while Sovremennik and another radical review were suspended. Aroused by the appearance of underground literature of domestic origin, the police had for some time been more vigilant. In July a number of arrests took place. Among those seized was Chernyshevsky.


Chernyshevsky may have helped to form the Central Revolutionary Committee, in the name of which Young Russia spoke and which was never mentioned again. He was not, however, directly involved either in the composition or the dissemination of the leaflet. Indeed, he repudiated it as inopportune. Moreover, he did not share the intransigeance, the revolutionary fervour that it expressed. In fact, early in 1862 he wrote a series of open letters to an unnamed person who was clearly none other than the Emperor. Breaking his silence on the subject of the emancipation, he made bold to point out that the reform had changed the appearance of the relations between master and man, but had left the reality nearly intact. In his carefully 'Aesopian' manner he managed to insinuate the thought that revolution was the only way out of the crisis brought about by the abolition of serfdom. But he also professed a desire to prevent violence. And the very fact that the letters were intended for the Czar's eyes argued that the author expected some good to come from the throne. The censor prevented his message from reaching its destination.

For some time he had been under police surveillance. His name headed the list of political suspects, which the Chief of the Gendarmerie drew up in April, 1862. The immediate pretext for his arrest was supplied, inadvertently, by Herzen. In a letter intercepted by the police the expatriate wrote that he was ready to help Chernyshevsky publish Sovremennik in London or Geneva. Chernyshevsky was confined to a cell in the Fortress of Peter and Paul and spent two years there awaiting trial. To beguile the empty hours he wrote, among other things, a tale called What's to Be Done? The investigating commission found nothing bearing on the case in the manuscript, and so registered no objection to it. The censor, assuming that it had been approved by an official body of high standing, passed it without further ado. Thus it came about that the work of a prisoner held in solitary confinement on a grave political charge appeared in 1863 in the pages of Sovremennik, which had been permitted to resume publication at the beginning of the year. Only then did the authorities outlaw the book. It remained under the ban until 1905.

What's to Be Done? is plainly a problem novel, the effort of a man intent on teaching his public what to think and how to live. The subtitle describes it as 'a tale of new men and women.' The heroine is the 'new woman,' as her two successive husbands represent the 'new man.' The story, which attempts to introduce the elements of a thriller, revolves around the trio's triumphant effort to make of marriage a comradeship based on equality, freedom, and reason. The accent is not, however, on the private complexities of what Henry James called 'the great constringent relation between man and woman,' but on the pursuit of the public good.

The two male protagonists are intellectuals of plebeian stock democrats by conviction, scientifically trained, tough-rninded self-assertive individuals. Adhering to the outwardly cynical moral code preached by the author, they reject such concepts as conscience, honour, duty, self-sacrifice, believing that the merely seek their own pleasure, which is man's natural bent Anything but starry-eyed idealists, they have persuaded them selves that they are moved exclusively by cold and calculating egoism, but, as a matter of fact, their ethical standards are ot the highest, they have hearts of gold, and they are selflessly devoted to the cause of the masses.

The 'new men' succeed in winning the heroine over to their way of thinking. She runs a co-operative tailoring shop, presides over a study circle for seamstresses, and studies medicine. In a dream she is granted a glimpse of the future that she and her friends are working to bring about. It beggars description. The deserts having been turned into gardens with the aid of science, the earth blooms like a rose. People live happily in the enjoyment of security, abundance, freedom, and equality of the sexes. Labour is a blessing. The workers inhabit sumptuous palaces built of metal and glass and provided with aluminum furniture, indirect lighting, and steam tables that render waiters unnecessary. Without being told in so many words, the reader knows that it was Socialism that had transformed a wretched land into an Eden.

What is to be done to turn the dream into a reality? The answer could not be specific, and it is not unambiguous. Speaking through his characters as well as in his own person, the author calls on his readers to emerge from their narrow, self-centred existences. Then, he tells them, light and joy will fill their days. Life can be wonderful. But they must love the future, reach forward to it, work for it, carry some of its elements into the present. And this is not difficult, it demands no sacrifices. On the other hand -- and this is more in keeping with the general tenor of his writings -- Chernyshevsky intimates that the transition to the new order will require the utmost efforts of a band of dedicated souls.

Such a one is Rakhmetov, a minor character. Unlike the other 'new men,' he is an aristocrat who has gone over to the people body and soul. He eats only such food as is the habitual fare of the peasantry, works with his hands, is proud of his phenomenal physical strength and completely disregards the proprieties. The money he has inherited he uses to help poor students. He travels abroad, not, Heaven forbid, for pleasure, but to inform himself about social conditions. He has no personal life, choosing celibacy, so as not to be deflected from his purpose. To test himself, presumably in anticipation of possible torture, he spends a night on a piece of felt studded with sharp nails, so that in the morning his back is a mass of bleeding wounds. Most of the time he leads the life of an athlete in training. In training for what? For Armageddon, of course; the battle on the great day of revolution. He is a man possessed, with something inhuman and superhuman about him. 'A sombre monster,' the heroine calls him, whereupon the author observes: 'A man with an ardent love of goodness cannot but be a sombre monster.' And he extols Rakhmetov as one of the chosen few, without whom life would lose its flavour. In creating this character the novelist drew, however awkwardly, a prophetic image. Here was the literary prototype of the professional revolutionary.

The influence exercised by What's to Be Done? was totally out of proportion to its literary merit, which is negligible. Writing years later, a competent observer asserted that since the start of printing in Russia no other book had achieved such an immense vogue. Much of this was due to the fact that it was a trumpet-call to action. Herzen noted that the young people who came from Russia in the 'sixties were all out of this novel with a dash of Bazarov in their make-up (Turgenev's Fathers and Children preceded Chernyshevsky's tale by a year). Denounced as lewd and immoral by the pillars of society, What's to Be Done? long remained the Bible of the radical youth. For all its glaring defects as a work of fiction it made effective propaganda for woman's emancipation, for Socialism, and, indirectly, for revolution. Be free in your personal relations and dedicate yourself in a disciplined realistic fashion to the cause of the people -- this was Chernyshevsky's answer to the query in his title. At the age of eighteen Lenin pored over its pages for weeks and later kept returning to it. He compared its effect on his mind to that which a second ploughing has on a field, and called it one of those books the impact of which lasts a lifetime. To judge by the reminiscences of Georgy Dimitroy, the Bulgarian revolutionary who was the hero of the Reichstag fire trial, the influence of the novel was not confined to Russia.

To come back to the prisoner, on the basis of documents forged, with the knowledge of the investigating commission, by a young protege of his who had turned informer, Chernyshevsky was convicted of composing the appeal to the peasants mentioned above and of an attempt to have it printed, as well as of 'an evil intent to overthrow the existing order.' The verdict also stated that he was 'a particularly dangerous agitator,' since his writings, steeped in 'extreme materialistic and socialist ideas,' had a great influence upon the young. He was condemned to fourteen years of hard labour and to Siberian exile for life, but the Emperor cut the term of penal servitude in half. There was widespread indignation at the sentence.

As a convict and as an exile staying in a small town lost in the Siberian wilderness, Chernyshevsky continued to write, but confined himself to fiction and allegorical skits, some of which have, fortunately, been lost. Absent, he was not forgotten. In revolutionary circles the question of freeing him was repeatedly mooted. One futile attempt was actually carried out, thereby worsening his position. When, in 1883, he was allowed to return to civilization, he was a broken man. Only half a dozen years were left him.

His martyrdom invested his name with a glory that time was slow in dimming. Early death had had the same effect on the reputation of his comrade, Dobrolubov. The Bolsheviks firmly clasped Chernyshevsky to their bosom. He had absolute revolutionary sense, Lenin declared privately, the way a singer has absolute pitch. He prized him particularly as an adversary of liberalism and as a thinker who demonstrated that every reasonable person must be a revolutionary. Lenin extolled him in print as 'a seer of genius,' an author whose works 'breathe the spirit of the class struggle,' as 'the great Hegelian and materialist' who prepared the best minds in Russia for the acceptance of Marxism. Lesser lights have been at pains to amplify and document these remarks. Chernyshevsky's leading Soviet biographer proclaimed him 'the founder of Russian Communism.' Some of his pages are required reading in the schools. In his native Saratov his statue has replaced the monument to the Czar who sent him to Siberia.

In order to establish him as an Ancestor, Soviet scholarship has had to distort the facts somewhat, a procedure in which it has had no little practice. True, he made his readers feel that they lived in an impermanent society which was in a state of deep crisis and which could and should be forcibly replaced by one resting on different foundations. Abominating the liberal temper, he came perilously close to extolling the revolutionary who is not squeamish about the means leading to his end, and is ready to soil his hands with mud or blood. But he was not free from the fear that revolution might be too costly a method of social change. Nor did he favour a centrally directed economy. He had a streak of the doctrinaire fanaticism that Herzen abhorred. Believing that material well-being is the sovereign good, he did not flinch from declaring that 'our Siberia' under the knout, where nevertheless people were well off, was 'much superior to England' with its Magna Carta, where 'the majority of people suffer need.' Yet he was certainly a determined enemy of the knout. As certainly he opposed compulsion where social and economic goals were concerned. 'Without a man's free consent,' he wrote, 'nothing truly useful can be done for him,' and he has made a character in his novel say that 'there is no happiness without freedom.' It is impossible to imagine him at ease in the society that has emerged from the revolution for which he laboured.


The gap made by Dobrolubov's death and Chernyshevsky's removal from the scene was partly filled by the meteoric career of another publicist who was destined to leave his mark on the thinking of young Russia: Dmitry Pisarev. Possessed of the verve, the truculence, the merciless dogmatism of a perennial adolescent, he had leapt into the limelight with an essay in which, following in Herzen's footsteps, he attacked scholasticism. He was then twenty-one (he was born in 1840). Chernyshevsky invited the youth to join the staff of Sovremennik, but Pisarev preferred to stay with another Petersburg monthly, Russkoe Slovo (The Russian Word), which soon became an influential organ of radical opinion.

The following year he was arrested. In a fit of indignation he had tossed off a vitriolic retort to a pamphlet against Herzen inspired by the police. 'The Romanov dynasty and the Petersburg bureaucracy,' he wrote, 'are ripe for the grave; all that is necessary is to give them the last push and cover their stinking corpses with mud.' Before the manuscript could be run off on an underground press it got into the hands of the authorities, and the author received a four-year prison term. It was from his cell in the Fortress of Peter and Paul that he contributed to Russkoe Slovo the brash, spirited commentaries and lay homilies that endeared him to a large segment of the intelligentzia.

He was only briefly and half-heartedly committed to revolution. The outburst that had landed him in prison was but a momentary frenzy, as he phrased it. He came to realize that it would be long before a frontal attack could be made on the existing order and that the task at hand was to act upon people's minds. To this task he devoted himself heart and soul.

'Here is the ultimatum of our camp: what can be smashed should be smashed; what will stand the blow is good; what will fly into smithereens is rubbish; at any rate, hit out right and left -- there will and can be no harm from it.' Thus said Pisarev in the early essay mentioned above. Such advice couched in such forthright language thrilled the radical youth. He went on employing his pen to discredit authority, tradition, all the pieties and taboos that restrain the individual. This did not keep him from upholding an extreme determinism which robbed the same individual of his freedom. The stand was forced upon him by his adherence to a materialism cruder than Herzen's or Chernyshevsky's. It was Pisarev who greatly contributed to the vogue, in avant-garde circles, of Buchner's Matter and Force and of Buckle's History of Civilization, with its assumption that human affairs, no less than theprocesses of nature, are subject to scientific laws.

Indeed, while himself incapable of scientific detachment, he ardently championed science as a cure-all, the power that could give the people both bread and freedom. Technological knowledge, he repeated, was Russia's greatest need. The country could not afford to divert its very limited intellectual cadres to any pursuits that did not increase the productivity of labour. As a result, this young man whose eyes would fill over a page of Crime and Punishment called for the abolition of arts and letters as a luxury that a poverty-stricken nation could not afford. "Some civic-minded artists and poets -- Pushkin was not among them -- he did exempt from proscription. He conceded reluctantly that a novel could serve as a medium of instruction or indoctrination and thus make itself useful to the common man, but warned that literature 'begins to demoralize society the moment it ceases to move it forward.' His advice to the general run of literati was to popularize the findings of the scientists. At this task he tried his hand himself, producing an exposition of Comte's philosophy and Darwin's theory of evolution. He ardently embraced the doctrine of the survival of the fittest in its crudest interpretation and, incidentally, ranged himself on the side of spontaneous generation, against Pasteur.

While the other leaders of radical opinion stressed man's duties toward society, Pisarev, when he began writing, accentuated self-cultivation and self-fulfilment. He even appeared to speak for a socially aloof and hedonistic individualism. Without, however, surrendering his belief that selfishness was man's prime mover, he came to hold that the enlightened egoist just naturally had at heart the good of all. In fact, Pisarev decided that the 'problem of the hungry and the naked' was the central concern of the age, the one toward which everyone's thought and action should be directed.

How was this problem to be solved? Pisarev's answer differed substantially from that offered by other radical thinkers. Exposed to the ideas of Saint-Simon, Fourier, and Proudhon, as well as those of Herzen and Chernyshevsky, he had naturally not remained immune to Socialism. He could speak deprecatingly of competitive economy and remark that some day 'the tyrannical domination of capital would fall,' as had theocracy and feudalism. On one occasion he observed that this consummation could only be effected by the workers themselves. Yet there is little in his writings to suggest that he wanted a popular revolution, either political or social. Nor did he have faith in the collectivist tradition or any other native virtue of the peasantry. Salvation, he was convinced, lay in going to school to the West, in assimilating the more tangible fruits of European civilization. Repeatedly he argued that the country's greatest need was a large contingent of private entrepreneurs equipped with technological and managerial skills, but also well-meaning, cultivated, enlightened people. An industrial economy run by these paragons under the aegis of science in the interests of labour -- not that these clashed with the interests of capital -- such was Pisarev's solution of the problem of the hungry and the naked. To the state he assigned purely police functions.

The plea for a quasi-technocracy scarcely impressed his readers. They were more receptive to his emphasis on the role of the intellectual elite. The majority, poor because it was ignorant or ignorant because it was poor, was helpless, he argued, without the leadership of the educated minority. This pet idea of Pisarev's found a climate in which it could slowly but surely thrive. Did a member of the elite owe his first duty to himself or to society? Pisarev was uncertain. It was one of those loose ends that give his doctrine an untidy look.

This rather ramshackle system of ideas Pisarev called realism, or critical realism. He was also content to let it go by the name of 'nihilism.' The term had occasionally been used before both in Russia and abroad, but it was popularized by Fathers and Children. In a lengthy review of Turgenev's novel he had hailed Bazarov, 'the nihilist,' as a model of the man who was Russia's hope: the hard-working, tough-minded empiricist and pragmatist, to whom Nature was not a temple but a workshop. The designation 'nihilism' was obviously a misnomer. The views of Pisarev and his followers were anything but a philosophy of a moral wasteland. If the accent was on ruthless criticism, the negations were nearly balanced by affirmations, and both were professed with a passion verging on fanaticism.

Some word was needed to label a type of young person set apart by peculiar mannerisms and opinions, that had emerged in the late fifties, and Turgenev had supplied the need. To the conservatives frightened by the threatening effects of the new freedom, nihilism connoted atheism, free love, sedition, the outraging of every decency and accepted belief by men and, as often, by the unwomanly 'emancipated' woman. A report by the head of the Third Division for the year 1869 contains this thumbnail sketch of her: 'She has cropped hair, wears blue glasses, is slovenly in her dress, rejects the use of comb and soap, and lives in civil matrimony with an equally repellent individual of the male sex or with several such.' The official had nothing against women's striving for education and economic independence. It was not only for ideological reasons that they gave their fathers and husbands what James Barrie called 'the twelve-pound look.' As the decay of the gentry proceeded apace, the need for gainful employment was beginning to weaken the dogma that woman's place was in the home. But he lamented the fact that emancipation had taken on a character that made it a menace to 'everything that should be sacred to the sex: family, religion, womanliness.'

The stereotype bore some resemblance to the true picture. The nihilists did make a point of defying the conventions in appearance, manners, and address. Scorning decorum as hypocrisy, they affected forthrightness to the point of rudeness. An irreverent lot, impatient of all restraints, questioning all authority, they flattered themselves that they were hard-headed, cynical, materialistic, where their elders were sentimental, soulful, idealistic. They wanted to believe that they lived by the precepts of enlightened egoism, and they sneered at delicate feelings and fine words, looked down upon the arts, dismissed speculative thought as cobweb-spinning, and worshipped crude empiricism, under the name of science.

Nihilism was an aspect of the revolt of a generation with no deep roots in any cultural tradition against the values of a quasi-feudal past. It was a manifestation of what, in the words of Ecclesiastes, was a time to break down. Indirectly it reflected the naturalistic trend that asserted itself in mid-century Europe, as well as the change in the social structure of the intelligentzia. Ever since the beginning of the new reign the educated class had been rapidly expanding, due to the growth of the school system, the rise of the legal profession, the extension of the public health service. At the same time the group, while remaining alienated from the masses, was losing its upper-class character. Its ranks were being increasingly invaded by raznochintzy, i.e., newcomers from the middle and lower strata of society: scions of declasse gentry, sons of professional men, of petty officials, manufacturers, tradespeople, and especially of the clergy, which had a low social status.

To a certain extent nihilism was a fad. This applies less to its plebeian than its genteel variety. The parlour nihilist flourished after the manner of the parlour pink. Many a nihilist, having sown his intellectual wild oats in his youth, settled down to a humdrum career or made the most of the new opportunities for getting rich that the growing industrialism offered. Enlightened egoism was likely to turn into egoism tout court, and the emphasis on individual freedom and on realistic thinking could be useful to those bent on elbowing their way to a place in the sun. On the other hand, nihilism was obviously a possible road to political insurgency. The attitude of criticism and revolt could shift from manners and morals to the socio-political level. Pisarev died in 1868, two years after he had regained freedom and before it became clear in which direction he would have moved. But several other contributors to Russkoe Slovo, who had shared his views, eventually found themselves in the revolutionary camp. The police report cited above stated: 'From the nasty prankishness of a few young people of both sexes who saw in the rejection of accepted conventions a means of proving their independence, nihilism has become a positive doctrine pursuing definite social and political aims. . . . It acts in the name of an idea, and that lends its followers the character of sectarians, i.e., eagerness to spread their teaching and readiness to suffer for it. . . .'

The ideological trend of which Pisarev had been the chief exponent did not long survive him. Nevertheless, the term lingered on, the conservative public finding it a convenient synonym for extreme and distasteful notions. Years after the word 'nihilist' had fallen into desuetude on its native heath, it continued to have currency in the West as a designation for the dangerous intellectual, the soberly dressed, serious-faced, longhaired man or short-haired woman, peering at a wicked world through dark spectacles, a book in one hand, a bomb in the other.


Alone the half a dozen years that followed the suppression of the 'conspiracy of ideas' associated with Petrashevsky's name form a virtual blank in the history of Russian radicalism. The lull ended when Alexander II ascended the throne. As has been seen, the beginning, however faint, of action 'in the name of an idea,' mentioned by the head of the Third Division, go back to the early years of the new reign. It was chiefly a matter of disseminating underground literature, at first produced abroad, later run off on clandestine presses at home. These activities were carried on by a few small groups, ephemeral, loose, having no connexion with each other. Not seldom they were offshoots of the ubiquitous 'circles for self-education,' the members of which -- mostly high-school and university students -- sought to improve their minds with respect to matters that the schools deliberately ignored. The situation finds its parallel in the French 'societies of thought' turning from discussions of the works of the philosophies to political propaganda.

The idea of gathering the scattered forces into a secret society on a national scale was not slow to sprout. It seems to have been considered by the London expatriates as early as 1857. An attempt to realize the idea was launched shortly after the liberation of the serfs. It was not a very serious or sustained effort, and Land and Liberty, as the organization that resulted from it was called, had only a shadowy existence. In theory it was a network of cells, each numbering five members and controlled from regional centres. In practice it was a congeries of several autonomous groups of young intellectuals located in the two capitals and in some of the provincial cities.

In the autumn of 1862 the society established contact with a group that called itself the Committee of Russian Officers in Poland. A list of sixty-four names, including that of Lenin's father-in-law, apparently members of this organization, has recently come to light. The Committee's propaganda aimed at persuading the troops stationed in the North-Western provinces not to use their arms against the Poles and to prepare to fight shoulder to shoulder with them for the freedom of the Russian and the Polish people. The previous spring the authorities uncovered the subversive activities of a circle of Russian officers in Warsaw, and three of the men were shot.

Land and Liberty survived the severe blow dealt it by the arrest in July 1862 of its chief organizer and of Chenyshevsky, who seems to have lent a hand in directing its activities. That winter a central committee was functioning in the capital. It is alleged that the society used the Petersburg Chess Club as a rendezvous. Perhaps because the society was trying for a united front, it was chary of a programme couched in anything but general terms. Ideologically the leadership followed Chernyshevsky in repudiating reformism. The first of the two issues of a sheet called Freedom, which were brought out early in 1863, contains an appeal to the educated classes. But while the Great Russian group had urged them to become politically active as an independent and decisive force; Land and Liberty sought to persuade the intellectuals to go over to the side of the masses and assume the leadership of a popular movement aiming at the expropriation of the landowners and the overthrow of the autocracy.

From the beginning, the enterprise had had Ogarev's sponsorship. In fact, the organization took its name from an article of his which answered the query: 'What do the people need?' with the words: 'Land and liberty.' But Herzen held aloof. Extremists continued to look askance at him. In fact, Young Russia dismissed The Bell as a liberal organ and 'a puzzle to truly revolutionary people.' Yet his prestige was still great. A leaflet that was circulated in Odessa in August 1862 ended thus: 'Long live the Republic! Long live the great dictator of Russia, A. Iskander!' But A. Iskander (Herzen's pseudonym, the reader will remember) was not cut out for the part of a dictator or revolutionary leader. He was an ideologue, not a man of action, a publicist, not a conspirator. Secret societies were not after his heart. Furthermore, he had not given up the notion that Alexander II was capable of heading a peacable social revolution. In denouncing the Young Russia manifesto as a rhetorical mixture of Babeuf and Schiller, he wrote, addressing the Russian youth: 'Should the fateful day [of revolution] arrive, stand firm and lay down your lives, but do not hail it as a desired day. If the sun does not rise amid bloodstained clouds, so much the better, and whether it wears a crown or a liberty cap -- it's all the same.' Another article of his, written about this time, concluded with the reflection that Russia's 'predestined saviour' might be 'an emperor who, renouncing the system inaugurated by Peter the Great, combined in his person a czar and a Stenka Razin (leader of the seventeenth-century jacquerie).'

In addition to Ogarev, Land and Liberty had in London another and far more ardent promoter in the person of Bakunin. He had joined the two expatriates shortly before 1862 was ushered in, and from then on the outside world came to think of Herzen, Ogarev, and Bakunin as a triumvirate, with the first of them as the master mind. Bakunin had escaped from Siberia to Japan, and on his way to Europe had stopped off in the United States long enough to declare his intention of becoming an American citizen and to have dinner with Longfellow, who described the Russian in his diary as 'a giant of a man with a most ardent, seething temperament.' The previous twelve years he had spent in the prisons of two countries besides his own and in Siberian exile. He had plotted with the Poles, had had a hand, it will be recalled, in the Paris revolution of 1848, made an abortive attempt to organize a secret revolutionary International, campaigned for a Czech revolt, participated in the Dresden uprising of 1849, been twice sentenced to death, and in 1851 extradited to the Russian authorities.

It was now his intention, he declared, to devote all his energies to fighting for the freedom of Russians and all Slavs. He had not yet formulated his anarchist doctrine, and he found himself echoing some of Herzen's views. But temperamentally the two men were so incompatible that they could not be comrades-in-arms, though they remained friends. Bakunin's instincts were all against moderation, and conspiratorial intrigue was his element. Small wonder then that he wholeheartedly embraced the cause of Land and Liberty and plunged into plotting with immense zest. He had plans for agitating in the army, among the peasantry and among the religious dissenters, and he toyed with the idea of a vast revolutionary organization ringing Russia with a network of its agents placed at strategic points on the border. Siberia was to be served by a branch located on the West coast of the United States.

Bakunin had long been convinced that a revolution was imminent at home. He was given to mistaking the second month of pregnancy for the ninth, as Herzen put it. It was then a common enough error. European radical circles were not free from it, and Bakunin's belief that the end of the old world was at hand had adherents in Russia. The explosion was expected to occur on the second anniversary of the emancipation. The peasants, it was said, looked for a new and better 'freedom' at that time, and the disappointment that was sure to follow was as sure to provoke a rising.

Meanwhile all through the summer and autumn of 1862 preparations for an armed insurrection were going on in the Polish provinces. The separatist movement there had revived with Alexander's accession, and now the situation was rapidly approaching a crisis. With Russian radicals and liberals sympathy for Poland's independence was traditional. It went back as far as the Decembrists. The Polish conspirators were naturally at pains to secure alliances with friends in the enemy camp. The Bell for 1 October, 1862, carried a manifesto by the People's Central Committee of Warsaw stating that the objectives of the movement were democratic. The editors declared that the Polish cause had their enthusiastic support. Shortly afterwards the Warsaw Committee concluded a pact with Land and Liberty, whereby the latter obligated itself to assist the insurrection by propaganda and diversionary tactics. The Poles seem to have believed that they had acquired a powerful ally. Herzen did what he could to dispel that delusion. He urged the conspirators to postpone action, at least until the spring of 1863, when, as has been said, the Russian villages were expected to be in a turmoil. With a sinking heart he watched the gathering of the storm, expecting nothing but calamity.

The course of events justified his worst fears. To force the issue, the Russian authorities suddenly declared conscription, in the Polish cities, and on 22 January, 1863, the revolt broke out. The Bell had urged the Russian officers not to spill Polish blood, and its issue dated 22 October, 1862, contained an address from the previously mentioned Committee of Russian Officers to the Governor of Poland, warning him that in case of an insurrection the troops would go to the Polish side and 'no power on earth could stop them.' Actually only one man, the Sub-Lieutenant who headed the Committee, took this step (and was killed in action against his own people). The troops both in and out of Poland remained loyal to the Czar, and the Poles were left alone to fight a losing battle.

In the midst of these events Herzen, finally yielding to the pressure of Ogarev and Bakunin, consented to give aid and comfort openly to Land and Liberty. In January, an emissary of the Society had arrived in London to secure the support of The Bell. According to Herzen's caustic account, the youthful envoy treated the expatriates -- the entire triumvirate was present -- 'as the commissars of the Convention of 1793 treated generals of distant armies.' Land and Liberty, the emissary declared, counted hundreds of members in the capital and three thousand in the provinces. Even the gullible Bakunin doubted these figures. The whole affair was distasteful to Herzen. Yet The Bell for 1 March ran an editorial which solemnly announced the formation of Land and Liberty as a result of the fusion of circles in the capital and the provinces with committees of officers, and extended a fervent greeting to it. Herzen was named the Society's chief representative abroad, and The Bell became in effect its organ.

This did not improve its fortunes. Except for printing an appeal to the troops not to bear arms against the rebels, it proved incapable of action. The emissary who had come to London failed to return home, and another member of the Central Committee also escaped abroad. Herzen could do nothing save inveigh against the Petersburg Government, while Bakunin kept evolving fantastic schemes, among them one for a rebellion in Finland. He actually took part in the quixotic expedition of a foreign legion which set out from Paris to join the Polish insurgents but disbanded before reaching its destination.

Seeing that no help was forthcoming from Land and Liberty, the Warsaw Committee decided to start on its own an uprising in the Volga region by way of creating a diversion in the enemy's rear. Kazan having been chosen as headquarters, in March several Polish patriots who served in the army and were stationed in the city persuaded a local student group affiliated with Land and Liberty to launch the insurrection by seizing the city. The conspirators had at their disposal four huridred roubles, fourteen revolvers without cartridges, and a number of copies of a fake imperial manifesto, composed by a Moscow student and printed abroad, which granted the peasants real 'freedom.' As one of the students turned informer, the plot was nipped in the bud, five Poles losing their lives and the Russians receiving prison terms.

As the months wore on, the Polish insurrection turned into guerrilla warfare which rapidly lost ground. Spring came and went, and nothing happened in Russia. Instead of being ablaze with revolt, the country was swept by a tide of reaction. The diplomatic intervention of foreign powers on behalf of the Poles caused a burst of chauvinism, and those who had sponsored the Polish cause were thoroughly compromised. Herzen had warned the Polish spokesmen: 'Our sympathy will do you no good at all, but will ruin us.' This is exactly what happened. Overnight the London expatriates had lost most of their following. They were denounced as traitors to their country. Towards the end of 1863 the circulation of The Bell dropped from two thousand five hundred copies to five hundred. Land and Liberty had ceased to exist. Herzen estimated the situation correctly when he wrote that before the insurrection a revolutionary organization was in the making, but that the impact of the explosion had destroyed it.